After a weekend as bad as the Irish provinces have had, it seems that the tendency is to panic. The provinces have struggled in Europe this season, and the manner of the Munster and Ulster defeats paint a grim picture going forward.
To panic though, would be wrong.
Irish rugby is in a great place. The national side are ranked 3rd in the world and are defending Six Nations champions, our star player was nominated for the best player in the world for last year, and the number of Irish qualified international standard players has never been higher.
Granted, the provincial results haven't been good this season, but let's identify why so they can be fixed instead of panicking.
Johann Muller, Brian O'Driscoll, Leo Cullen, Stephen Ferris, David Wallace, Ronan O'Gara, Isa Nacewa, Doug Howlett. The 3 main provinces have lot a huge amount of talent in the last number of years due to retirement. Any squad would find things difficult after losing quality like that, so a certain amount of the shift in power is cyclical.
It's nothing to worry about, as Ireland are in a position where there are a lot of young talent around with the likes of Rory Scholes, Gary Ringrose, Ciaran Gaffney, Jack O'Donoghue and Dan Leavy all set to make the jump soon after starring in Irish underage set ups.
The list of injuries that the provinces have had to deal with has been extraordinary. Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien, Ben Te'o, Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Jackson, Wiehahn Herbst, Conor Murray and Keith Earls have all been out injured at key points during the season to name just a few. There aren't many teams that can soak up these hits the way the provinces were able to, and it looks like it may have caught up to Munster and Ulster last weekend.
3. Financial Power
The new European competitions will not suit the provinces. More finance is getting pumped into the rich English and French clubs, giving their financial backers the ability to sign the likes of Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu, Sam Burgess, Matt Giteau, Duane Vermuelen, or Samu Manoa.
Irish provinces haven't been able to compete with this level of talent so far. This is something that needs to change.
There have been numerous calls for the IRFU to back down with the NIQ rules instead of reducing the allowed number as planned. The argument being that having more foreign players immediately equates to more competitive provinces. This allows provinces to waste NIQ spots and money on players like Steven Sykes, Peter Borlase and Eddie Hekenui.
The NIQ rules are currently that Munster, Ulster and Leinster are only allowed have 4 NIQ (Non-Irish Qualified players) and 1 designated project player (i.e. someone who can qualify for Ireland after a residency of 3 years). This is being reduced to 3NIQs + 1 project player from the start of next season. Ulster are being given a special dispensation given that they have their 4+1 NIQ and project players contracted until at least 2016.
The reduction in the NIQ rules is a good thing. Remember, they are there in the first place because it allows Irish players to come through. Players like Jack Conan, Jordi Murphy, Duncan Casey, or James Cronin. Players who previously would have been stuck behind NIQs and would have wasted away not getting the required rugby needed to develop their talents.
I'm not saying NIQ players are not beneficial, they are. Just like at the impact Mils Muliaina is having on Connacht, or how Brad Thorn energised Leinster. There is a place for NIQ players, but they must be the right NIQ players. Not too many, and players of sufficient quality that impart knowledge to the rest of the Irish players and help make the provinces competitive. Players like Steven Sykes and Peter Borlase wouldn't do that.
Limiting the number of NIQ players per team means that provinces have less room for error, but can focus resources on securing the right players. The IRFU just need to ensure that they can give the provinces enough funding to get the right players.
That's the way forward, and is echoed by Bernard Jackman, both in his column for the Irish Examiner, and the really interesting Off The Ball segment last night. (NIQ talk from 18:35)
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